About one year ago, my mom, son, and I attended the rally in which Mark McAfee announced the end of the Organic Pastures recall for E. coli 0157:H7. So many interesting people were there. I met families from the Bay Area and Southern California. I shared mountain-blackberry water kefir out of the trunk of my car with the Los Angeles delivery guys for Organic Pastures and with a family I met on the Mothering message boards. My husband saw the pictures of us drinking the kefir and said, “Now that is what I would call a ‘crunchy’ moment.” We shared fermentation recipes.
There was one woman who stood out that day. My mother has since mentioned her at least once quarterly. Mom calls her “The Dragon Lady.” While everyone else was openly excited to meet all of the like-minded people in attendance, the Dragon Lady walked around with a grimace. She had two ladies with her who seemed to want to hang out but who had to stay at the heels of a woman whose face knew no smile lines.
“Poor Dragon Lady,” I say when my mother brings up the event. “Surely she would have enjoyed the blackberry kefir.”
The Dragon Lady’s name has come up a lot lately.
“Do you think the Dragon Lady was behind those amendments?” Mom asked the other day.
You see, the topic of conversation for the past week has been the Trojan Horse that got rolled into the California Statehouse when we weren’t looking. Someone decided that if you can’t close down that renegade raw-milk cowboy Mark McAfee and his Organic Pastures Dairy with a recall for E. coli 0157:H7 (that was never found in the test samples), and not even a cream recall a year later for listeria (though nobody got sick) — obviously you need a new strategy.
“I know! Let’s redefine milk,” Dragon Lady perhaps said to herself. Then she called a few politicians.
“Since under California law selling raw milk is legal [Section 35928F], we can’t just ban it. So let’s reformulate what qualifies as Grade A raw milk for human consumption. But don’t tell those consumers about it or they’ll fight tooth and dirty nail. (I saw them in person last October. A few were drinking something strange out of the trunk of a beat-up Honda Accord!) We should pretend it’s a gift, one that aligns California law with federal dairy standards. By about January 20, those *%$#@ McAfees will be looking for alternative employment.”
On October 8, 2007, Governor Schwarzenegger approved AB 1735. It will cripple the raw dairy industry in California. The legislation adds eight words to the law, emphasized here in bold:
SEC. 2. Section 35781 of the Food and Agricultural Code is amended to read:
35781. (a) Except as otherwise provided in this article, market milk shall not contain any of the following:
(1) More than 15,000 bacteria per milliliter or more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter if to be sold as raw milk to the consumer.
(2) More than 50,000 bacteria per milliliter if to be sold as raw milk for pasteurization or more than 750 bacteria per milliliter after having been subjected to laboratory pasteurization which has a time-temperature equivalent to that required in Section 34001 before pasteurization.
(3) More than 15,000 bacteria per milliliter or more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter at time of delivery to the consumer, if pasteurized.
Coliform bacteria are a mixed lot. Some are beneficial, some are pathogenic. This legislation makes no distinction between the two.
[Update: Carol Ness has a page A-1 story on the new law in Friday's S.F. Chronicle]
Legislators could have required pathogen testing. Organic Pastures already tests for E. coli 0157:H7 and now does so for Listeria monocytogenes, salmonella, and camphylobacter, the key human pathogens in the food supply. Mandatory testing for pathogenic bacteria, then, would not be the quickest way to shut the dairy down.
But if you require milk to be an industrially sterile product, something other than its living, breathing nature — aha! Milk tends to have a coliform count higher than ten coliform per milliliter. I actually learned this fact in a two-minute literature search in the Food Science and Technology Abstracts. I have a hunch that dairy experts in California figured it out well before I did.
In a 2004 study in the Journal of Dairy Science, 80% of the samples in raw bulk-tank milk had coliform levels that would not meet this new requirement for raw milk in California. Now, most raw bulk-tank milk is headed for pasteurization, perhaps even ultrapasteurization, so conventional dairies couldn’t care less.
This is a way to make Organic Pastures and Claravale, the two commercial raw dairies in California, pasteurize or get out of the business.
The nature of milk
Raw milk has coliforms. That is simply its nature. That is why it sours in my refrigerator. The beneficial strains of coliforms, the other beneficial bacteria, and the immunoglobulins are why I pay more for raw milk.
I know that folks at the statehouse think I’m crazy and uninformed. They visit dairies regularly and know that it is increasingly common to find E. coli 0157:H7 in their cows. I am playing “Russian roulette,” they claim.
But there is something that humans and cows have in common. When we are living on a diet that God intended for us, our intestines are less likely to be a breeding ground for pathogenic bacteria. When our gut is full of beneficial bacteria, it can fight back when we come into contact with pathogenic bacteria.
Government health officials are pursuing an "offensive" health strategy. Until now, those of us who want to can choose not to react to illnesses and pathogens in our environment with technological cures, but instead build up our bodies so that when we come into contact with those illnesses and pathogens, it is simply a non-event for us.
It may work the same for cows. When they graze freely on grass rather than eating grain in confinement, they are much, much healthier, requiring no routine doses of antibiotics. Cornell researchers have shown that even switching cornfed feedlot cows to grass for just five days before slaughter vastly reduces the amount of E. coli 0157:H7 in their intestinal tracts.
But the nature of milk must change, according to the Agriculture Committee in the California Assembly, the legislature, the governor’s office, and The Dragon Lady. The new law passed unanimously, while we California raw-milk drinkers were busy turning our milk into kefir and cheese.
I expect we need to spend more time on politics and less time on cooking and eating if so many politicians (and ladies who do not know how to smile) are going to make our kitchens their business.
But every bad piece of news seemingly has a good side, and the good side here is that you may get to meet the Dragon Lady before this is all over. Our first opportunity is 11 a.m. this coming Saturday at the Fresno Farmers Market on Shaw and Blackstone. I’ll be the one sipping pomegranate kefir next to the trunk of my beat-up Honda Accord.
In the meantime, visit Organic Pastures’ action page and send letters to lawmakers in California. Tell them to keep out of your kitchen. Post about this on your blog. Ask lawmakers to send bureaucrats to the Fresno Farmers Market who can at least pretend-smile.
And if you see the Dragon Lady, take a picture!
Update: David Gumpert has a post on The Complete Patient with more details on the new language, and how it will affect the raw-milk dairies.